The telephone rings at Butterball U. and the first words the operator usually hears are, "You're not going to believe this, but . . . ."
But the Turkey Talkers probably have heard it before. They've been giving advice and saving anxious cooks from "turkey trauma" for the past seven years.
The group of 48 home economists operate a toll-free hot line now through Dec. 24, answering questions ranging from how to defrost a turkey to what to do with leftovers.
'We've Come a Long Way'
"There were only six of us at the beginning," said hot-line director Jean Schnelle in a telephone interview from Chicago. "We almost burned out the phone wires that year. We've come a long way since then. People depend on us. We're part of the Thanksgiving tradition."
Before the hot line opens up for business, Turkey Talkers get a two-day training session with lessons on telephone technique, food safety, a notebook crammed with turkey-related tips and time in the test kitchen, said Schnelle.
"We roast turkeys in a variety of methods to see which ones yield the best-looking turkey," she said. "We will see what works and make recommendations on the basis of that experience."
Last year, the hot line took calls from 58,000 people, with 6,200 alone on Thanksgiving Day, said Schnelle.
"On Thanksgiving morning, we get the sense of seeing all these ovens all over the country and all these people standing over them, flushed and distressed," she said.
A lot of calls are from cooks who suddenly find themselves in charge of the big bird.
"We have so many people calling us and say, 'This is the first time I've done a turkey and I'm embarrassed to ask someone how to do this,' " said Schnelle. "They've had Thanksgiving dinner at someone else's house for years, and that someone has moved and now they're the hostess."
Basic queries include "What size turkey should I buy?" to such comments as "I didn't know I had to thaw this thing," she said, and sometimes the confusion stems from how they've seen it done throughout the years.
"Using steel pins used to be a big deal but most turkeys these days have a flap of skin (to keep moisture in) so those aren't needed anymore," said Schnelle. "We get people saying, 'But my grandmother did it that way.'
"We don't even recommend using a covered roaster. Our favorite method is using an uncovered pan with high enough sides with the turkey on a little rack. A meat thermometer is also good to have."
Carving a turkey also seems to be a practice cloaked in secret ritual but actually is fairly simple, said Schnelle.
"A turkey will taste just as good no matter how it's cut up," she said. "One operator got a call on Thanksgiving Day from a man who phoned from the dinner table, saying, 'OK, it's in front of me, I've got the knife in my hand, now what do I do?' "
An increasing number of calls come from immigrant families, said Schnelle, eager to take part in this most American of holidays.
"One of the operators one day found herself describing what cranberries and bread cubes were," she said. "It was a new family from the Orient and they wanted to do everything typically American.
"It seems no matter what the nationality is, you get a sense that this is one time a year everyone does the same thing--cook a turkey."
Concerned cooks may call the Turkey Talkers hot line at (800) 323-4848 from 6 a.m to 6 p.m. PST now and from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. the weekends of Nov. 14-15, Nov. 21-22 and Christmas Eve. On Thanksgiving Day, the hot line will be open from 4 a.m to 4 p.m.
Callers may receive a free booklet containing recipes for leftovers upon request.